Posted by: zhiv | January 3, 2010

The Awakening, Kate Chopin

Interesting book. I’d have to look to see who it was, but some one recommended The Awakening to me as part of Jewett-Schreiner-Cather studies, and I should probably add Edith Wharton to that group. My daughter read this book a few years ago in high school, and it seems to be a very strong introductory literary text, straightforward, steady, and rather short. It probably best serves as an introduction to independent female consciousness, a rejection of conventions that becomes a process of decision-making, ultimately an exploration of the choices available to a woman who “awakens” to the idea that her married life is unsatisfying and untenable.

The foils in the book are intriguing. The image and character of Adele Ratignolle sets up a strong contrast to the heroine Edna Pontellier. Chopin makes a helpful, insightful generalization: “In short, Mrs. Pontellier was not a mother-woman. The mother-woman seemed to prevail that summer at Grand Isle. It was easy to know them, fluttering about with extended, protecting wings when any harm, real or imaginary, threatened their precious brood. They were women who idolized their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.” The question, then, is what kind of character develops when a heroine is not a “mother-woman.” Chopin gets great mileage out of setting up a maternal paragon in Adele Ratignolle, beautiful and effortlessly compliant. Edna begins her process of self-definition through her contrast against Madame Ratignolle.

The men in the short book are less satisfying, but they’re effective. The interesting thing about Edna’s husband, Leonce Pontellier, is that he’s not horrible and intolerable, he’s just conventional, selfish, and has low expectations of his wife’s emotional needs. This serves Chopin’s purpose well, making Edna the agent of her own awakening. She’s not simply reacting against a strong negative. This is a tactic and accomplishment worth appreciating. Likewise, Edna’s romantic interests, Robert LeBrun and Alcee Arobin, are charming but muted and flawed, without a whole lot to recommend them besides the fact that they aren’t her husband, and that they admire her. Again, this plants the agency in Edna and her emerging independence and self-consciousness, making her more effective and less reactive. This carefully managed slow growth of consciousness must be the book’s distinction, along with its morality, shocking for its day. It’s not so different from what Henry James does in Portrait of a Lady, but it does go a bit further.

This combination of consciousness and moral questioning is relatively modern, I suppose, and there’s certainly a strong feminist argument made here. The book seemed to me more of a regional gloss on Flaubert and James, written by a woman and taking advantage of its Creole, New Orleans setting, daring and even sensational in its way, but standard in its plotting and form. Reliance on plot is perhaps its undoing, as there’s no acceptable conclusion for Edna, similar to Schreiner’s heroine in African Farm, and she drowns in the end like so many other heroines who have gained consciousness. There’s some progress as she stays in character here, having taught herself to swim and then choosing to swim out beyond her strength as her form of suicide. She’s drowned by choice, not by fate.

Now that I’ve read this book I want to read more about it and to see how it fits. The one note I find, in my cheap but usable Dover edition that contains my daughter’s now-distant high school underlining and classroom doodling, is that Kate Chopin was established as a “local color” writer, much like Sarah Orne Jewett, but in more recent times The Awakening was discovered to transcend the genre and entered the feminist canon. I like this for the transcendence part, similar to Jewett, but it also makes me realize that I don’t really know anything about these local color, regional writers, and it would be nice to have an overview.

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Responses

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed The Awakening, especially the underlying motifs, such as the birds and the ocean. You can find some interesting symbolism in the way birds are treated as you further explore the text.


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